How to Determine the Quality of Good Coffee

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If you're a coffee fan, you know what you like, but you may not know exactly why a certain cup makes the morning sun shine a bit brighter and brings a happy smile to your face. Coffee tasters look at the fragrance and color of the beans, and the aroma of the finished brew. To get started, sniff the fresh grounds. Then take in the aroma of the poured coffee and carefully and slowly taste the brew, rolling it around on your tongue.

Flavor Profiles

You can look for flavors that tasters at Peets coffee, the specialty coffee and tea company based in Berkeley, California, describe as flowery, earthy, rich, nutty, chocolaty or fruity -- descriptions in line with those for fine wines. High-end provender Seattle Coffee Gear lists and groups more than 100 flavor profiles, from tangy to vanilla-like, in a giant color wheel.

Tip

  • As you gain more experience with coffees, you can taste for body -- its feel in your mouth -- and acidity, which is actually essential for lively flavor. Be aware also of the "nose," or vapors released by the coffee in the mouth.

Bean characteristics vary by region:

  • The Indo-Pacific produces full-bodied coffees, earthy and at times smoky, with a dry finish.
  • African beans -- coffee was first grown in Ethiopia -- are described as complex and floral, strong and full bodied.
  • Beans grown in the Americas tend to be slightly sweet and variable in quality, with exceptional coffees from Panama and Jamaica, and cleaner flavors from Central America. Creamier or more chocolaty notes come from Colombian and Brazilian growers. The Colombian profile, mellow and medium-bodied, is perhaps most familiar to American coffee drinkers.

Grades

Each country grades beans slightly differently, depending on characteristics including:

  • Bean size 
  • Appearance, including color 
  • The flavor of a finished cup. 

Top-quality beans go into bags as whole beans, and poorer grade ones with defects and breaks become ground and canned.

Effects of Roasting

Even more important to the flavor profile is the roasting process, whereby longer and hotter roasting times result in a darker bean with a distinct, rich and slightly bitter taste. This roasted taste becomes more prevalent and central to the drinking experience than the intrinsic flavor of the bean.

Quantity and Storage

Time, as well as oxygen, heat, light and moisture, all conspire to rob the roasted beans of their aroma and flavor, as the volatile oil caffeol dissipates. Your best approach is to buy whole beans in quantities that you can consume in two weeks, and keep them in an airtight container. Already-ground coffee suffers quality loss more quickly, given the greater exposure of the particles to air.

Tip

  • If you end up with larger quantities, place the well-wrapped superfluous beans in the freezer. Grind just enough of them directly from the frozen state for your morning pot.

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